The Metaphysical Ground of the Whiteheadian God
by Marjorie Suchocki
Marjorie Suchocki received her Ph.D. at the Claremont Graduate School, in 1974, and is Dean Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont California. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 237-246, Vol. 5, Number 4, Winter, 1975. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Surely one of the strangest twists in the adventures of Whiteheadian ideas is that a concept of God developed under the dictum that God must be the chief exemplification of metaphysical principles should find itself revised precisely on the grounds that it leads to an arbitrary disconnection of these principles. In A Christian Natural Theology John B. Cobb, Jr., contends that greater coherence is obtained if God be considered not as an actual entity, as Whitehead deemed necessary, but as a society of occasions such as obtains in living persons. The problem of God’s satisfaction, the difficulty of the prehension of contemporaries, and the means whereby the abstract primordial nature attains a relevance for a new occasion are all cited as leading to an incoherence which can be avoided if the idea of God is revised from an actual entity to a society of living Occasions.
I suggest that close attention to the necessity and the implications of the reversal of poles which Whitehead attributes to God’s actuality will prove that the above difficulties are pseudo-problems, arising only when the importance of the reversal of poles is not seriously considered. Since these problems are resolvable through Whitehead’s own model for God, the extensive revision of that model raises the possibility that the revision itself may violate the basic principles in the process scheme.
To develop these thoughts, I shall proceed with the necessity for the reversal of poles and then discuss the implications for concrescence which follow. These implications hold the answer to the problems raised by Cobb and also suggest the dangers entailed by the societal view.
Why the need for a reversal of poles in God? Why must God "originate" in the mental pole, conversely to every other actual entity? The answer rests with the requirement for an actual ground to the novelty which is experienced in the world. The initial aim of an occasion is always an aim toward novelty; the question, particularly acute in the case of high grade entities, is: what is the source of novelty?
Novelty cannot simply float into the universe out of nowhere; otherwise, the ontological principle, which has been the bedrock of Whitehead’s realism, is violated at its most crucial point. For "nothingness" would then become equivalent to a deus ex machina for the philosophy of organism, happily providing the novel possibility in the nick of time. Clearly, novelty requires a ground, a source in some actuality, if it is to be rationally incorporated into a philosophical understanding of experience.
Can novelty be understood as the natural fruit of the past? "No two actual entities originate from an identical universe" (PR 33); therefore, each occasion is a unique combination of elements from the past which have never before been experienced in actual togetherness. Is not this very uniqueness of the combination of factors from the past sufficient to account for the novelty of the emerging present? If the entities to be combined have never before been combined, then surely the combination in the present will naturally be novel. The reason for the novelty would then rest precisely in the actuality of the past.
But unfortunately, such an argument assumes what it must explain. For why has the past never been combined in just such a way prior to the novel combination of the present? The difficulty is that the past, in its own time of presentness, was itself unique. Its occurrence therefore added novelty to its own past, creating a new past for an emerging present. If one looks to the past in this way for novelty, one is involved in an infinite regress, for the novelty of the past must always be explained in terms of its own presentness. It is, then, no explanation at all. Why does each present occasion create a newness, such that it is a new combination of the past, and requires a novel combination in a future?
A different attempt to locate the source of novelty in the actuality of the past flows from the essential relatedness of all possibilities in an eternal hierarchy in the Whiteheadian system. In Whitehead’s delineation of eternal objects, he notes that each object is the very thing which it is by virtue of its pattern of relatedness to every other object. Each object, therefore, can be said to imply all others through these definite relationships. Should even one of these relationships be changed, the object itself would be replaced by quite another possibility -- and yet, strictly speaking, it could not be "replaced," for the second object under consideration is neither new nor a replacement in any sense. It is simply one of the other variant possibilities of relationships, existing in precisely that pattern from all eternity. There are as many objects as possibilities of relationships; each object, having a definite place in the pattern, implies all others.
Since, then, each possibility contains a necessary internal reference to every other possibility, is there not an entry point for novelty through this very relatedness? That is, an actual occasion demonstrates the ingredience of an eternal object which is itself related to all others. Could not an emerging occasion, utilizing hybrid prehensions, bypass an ingredient object manifested by its past, moving instead to an eternal object suggested by its implied presence through relatedness?
If this mode of entrance for novelty were in fact the case, then order would be inexplicable. For it implies that all things are possible for the emerging entity, that there is no possibility outside of the conceivable limits of the entity. If the infinite relatedness of eternal objects which obtains in the realm of possibility is effective through the agency of any and every entity, then the limitation of the past is no limitation at all. Real potentiality and sheer potentiality would be indistinguishable, and with the loss of distinction between them, order disappears as well. In its place random chance should be the nature of actuality, and in such a "world" novelty would have no meaning. For novelty presupposes order. Since, then, the availability of all possibility through the past, understood through the principle of essential relatedness which characterizes the realm of eternal objects, amounts to a theoretical dispensing of order, it cannot ground novelty.
If novelty is not wholly explicable in terms of the past, can it be understood in terms of the present? We have noted that insofar as the past allows novelty, it is because it itself manifested novelty within its own present -- perhaps, then, the present provides an explanation of novelty. Since the occasion is the manifestation of novelty, can it not be the "whence" as well as the "where" of novelty? Not in a Whiteheadian world: the occasion is not sufficient to originate the potential qua potential for the very reason that the occasion is evoked by the potentiality relevant to its becoming; the potentiality logically precedes the actuality in the sense that the new occasion is dependent upon possibility in order to become anything at all. In a process metaphysics there is no substance contemplating that which it shall become; there is only becoming as such. The possibilities, therefore, must be given for the production of a subject. The very becoming which is subjectivity is an active feeling of given possibilities relevant to a particular locus; it is a sifting, a contrasting, an evaluating which is in itself the transformation of possibility into actuality. The occasion therefore does not create the possibility; it actualizes the possibility, and its newness as actuality is just this transformation.
However, although the possibility is presupposed by the occasion, and hence is logically prior to the occasion, the actualized occasion is new, an actual event never before existent in the universe. Thus the presupposed novel possibility is not something contained by the past actual occasions; it transcends the past. Nor is it wholly accounted for through the present, for since it appears to evoke the present, it transcends the present as well. And novelty cannot be a function of the future, since the future, as nonactual, cannot provide the requisite agency. The reason for novelty must rest in "either the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence" (PR 36). Yet novelty can be accounted for neither by the past occasions nor by the concrescing entity, and in its transcendence of both past and present it appears to require timelessness.
There is a further consideration to the conundrum, if possibilities as pure possibilities transcend time. For they are only possible if there is an actuality to which they can conceivably relate. While actuality, as we have seen, depends upon possibility, it is also the case that possibility depends upon actuality; were nothing actual, nothing would be possible. The requirement then emerges that in order to account rationally for the presence of novelty there be in some sense a timeless actuality which is the ground of all possibility. This actuality must be timeless in order that all possibility shall be possible; without some such actuality there is only impossibility; with such an actuality there is infinite possibility -- infinite in that all things become possible. If all ‘things are possible, there would then be a sufficient and rational accounting for the novelty within the universe in full accordance with the fundamental ontological principle of the categoreal scheme; the reason for novelty rests within actuality.
Yet for this to be the case, coherence demands that this nontemporal actuality be fundamentally and integrally related to all possibilities in a way essentially different from that of the temporal occasions. For if indeed the actual entity in question is to ground all possibility, then the relationship to these possibilities must be eternal, and eternally open. Otherwise, there is no ground to the unlimited experience of novelty in the world. A temporal occasion closes possibilities; its very nature is the elimination of many possibilities in election of just one. The ground of possibility cannot exhibit this feature and still be conceivable as a ground of novelty. How, then, can this actuality which is so necessary be eternally related to all possibility?
The answer, of course, will lie in Whitehead’s reversal of poles in the understanding of God. An occasion originating in its feeling of other entities encounters an essential limitation in that unification requires elimination. The occasion feels a specific past which can only be coordinated on the basis of selective simplification. Manyness gives way to the one. Thus a physical origination cannot ground all possibility, since it necessarily requires elimination of possibility. The mental pole, however, even while it is the prime means of simplification, is also the route to novelty by virtue of its essential affinity for eternal objects. For through the mental pole, the occasion abstracts the ingredient objects from its feelings of the past, instigating the comparing process whereby it selectively achieves a new, unified possibility. If this route to novelty were not bound by the physical past, then neither would it be bound to elimination. Unification then would not be based on incompatible actualities, but on infinitely open possibilities which, as possible rather than actual, can exercise no real exclusion. An origination in the mental pole, therefore, offers an infinite openness to possibility.
Unification would still be necessary, of course, but since this unification requires no elimination, it would be an eternal valuation of all objects. Such a valuation provides unification since it would be the togetherness of what would otherwise be sheer multiplicity. The conceptual feeling for the infinite ways in which possibilities can be together is at once a valuation and a unification of the possibilities. As valuation, it exhibits the adjustments of aversion and adversion relevant to the various possibilities of combinations; as unification, it exhibits the ultimate togetherness of possibilities unbounded by actuality.
Further, the very actuality of the entity thus originating in its mental pole would require that the multiplicity of eternal objects be felt in an inclusively unified way. For finally, the mental pole is a unification of purposeful feelings; an origination in this pole cannot be a simple feeling of multiplicity, but it must be a unification of multiplicity. Therefore, an actual entity originating in its mental pole, such that it grounds all possibility, must be an "unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects" (PR 46). Since it is a valuation, the situation holds that the final result of a physically originated entity -- that is, the satisfaction which is the definite selective valuation of one possibility -- is now reversed to be the infinitely complex "beginning" of the mentally originated entity.
Novelty is grounded, therefore, in a nontemporal actual entity whose primordial origination exists through the "all-inclusive unfettered valuation" (PR 47) of all possibilities. The locus of sheer possibility, and the agency whereby novel possibilities evoke a new becoming, are rationally explained only through the existence of such an entity.
If the rational need to ground novelty in an actual entity demands the existence of a nontemporal entity originating primordially in a conceptual valuation of all possibilities, it is also the case that the coherence of the system demands that this unique entity shall nevertheless conform to all of the categories of explanation applicable to actual entities. That the entity originates in the mental pole is not an exception to the system; it is a completion to the system -- but to make this truly a completion, truly an integral and rational part of the whole, it is necessary that this entity manifest the categoreal requirements in a manner consistent with the reversal of the poles. If the entity were to act in precisely the same manner as all other occasions, the reversal of poles would be overlooked, and the entity would thereby be an arbitrary exception to the metaphysical principles. Therefore, the rational coherence of the system demands that the nontemporal actual entity concresce conversely to those occasions originating in the physical pole.
Such a reverse concrescence would exhibit the following features: satisfaction, which is the conclusion of an occasion, would belong to the primordial condition of God. The subjective aim, rather than leading toward satisfaction, would issue from satisfaction and would therefore naturally entail superjectivity as well. Further, these two aspects of satisfaction, e.g., aim and superjectivity, would result in an infinitely increasing physical pole, such that the reverse entity would move not from multiplicity toward a simplified though complex unity, as do the occasions, but from a complex unity toward an ever greater multiplicity. This concrescent multiplicity, in conformity with the essential unity of an actual entity, would be absorbed into the primordial unity in an everlastingly dynamic process. Satisfaction, aim, superjectivity, and unification would have to be understood as continuous terms rather than as temporally successive terms, in accordance with the internal, nonlinear "time" of concrescence.
I am maintaining, of course, that all of the unique features of Whitehead’s God -- those features which are cited as leading to incoherence -- are consistent, necessary, and therefore coherent within the system, since they are entailed by the reversal of poles and consequent reversal of concrescence. By taking three of these features -- satisfaction, aim, and superjectivity -- I hope to demonstrate how the three objections mentioned at the beginning of this essay are overcome.
The most obvious result of the reversal of concrescence is the primordial satisfaction. Perhaps this can be made clearer by demonstrating the comparison between Whitehead’s description of an occasion’s satisfaction and his description of the primordial nature of God.
Whitehead gives, in one of his many delineations of an occasion’s satisfaction, the following account:
There are three successive phases of feelings, namely, a phase of conformal feelings, one of ‘conceptual’ feelings, and one of ‘comparative’ feelings, including ‘propositional’ feelings in this last species The two latter stages of feeling are the stages of comparison; these stages involve comparisons, and comparisons of comparisons; and the admission, or exclusion, of an indefinite complexity of potentialities for comparison, in ascending grades.
The ultimate attainment is ‘satisfaction.’ (PR 249, 251)
Here the process of concrescence is stated in such a way that the two latter stages lead to what appears to be a final valuation of the eternal objects relevant to the occasion. But if the final satisfaction is indeed the result of the progressive gradation of eternal objects relative to the occasion throughout its concrescence (see PR 248), then the satisfaction is quite analogous to the primordial gradation in God:
by the principle of relativity there can only be one non-derivative actuality, unbounded by its prehensions of an actual world. Such a primordial superject of creativity achieves, in its unity of satisfaction, the complete conceptual valuation of all eternal objects. This is the ultimate, basic adjustment of the togetherness of eternal objects on which creative order depends. It is the conceptual adjustment of all appetites in the form of aversions and adversions. (PR 48)
The origination in the conceptual pole necessarily involves a primordial gradation of objects in such a way that they are adjusted in a unified togetherness of valuation. But this definite valuation is precisely the aim of every occasion as it moves from multiplicity to unity. And just as the achievement of this valuation is the satisfaction of the occasion, the primordial and eternal valuation in God is the satisfaction of God. Thus what is the end with the occasion is the beginning with God.
At this point we should consider the possible categoreal objection that a satisfaction cannot be a component in the process of a concrescence. For obviously if satisfaction marks the beginning with God and if God must be in concrescence, then satisfaction is a component in his concrescence. Does this mark a violation of the metaphysics?
There are two points at issue: first, a satisfaction which was a component in the process of an occasion would never truly be complete, for it would require successive modifications according to the new data made available through its relative effectiveness. But second, and underlying our first issue, is the violence done to the givenness of the past, and hence the whole analysis of process and relativity. The inclusion of the satisfaction in the occasion as a contributory component would amount to a return to a substance metaphysics; the process insights of a dynamic becoming would be replaced by reference to substances undergoing accidental changes. If satisfaction is to be included in the primordial nature of God, it can only coherently be done if at the same time it avoids such undermining dangers.
The dangers are avoided because of the very completeness of God’s primordial satisfaction. The difficulty of the changing nature of the satisfaction which would occur should it be a component of the occasion is due to the limited initial selectivity of the occasion. In its finitude, the occasion must negatively prehend many eternal objects in order to achieve its final complex unity. But if the occasion enjoyed the effects of its satisfaction, then previously irrelevant objects would move into relevance, and a necessary alteration would take place. Formerly negated eternal objects would require positive ingredience, "stubborn facticity" would give way to ambivalence -- each occasion in the past would thus lose its definiteness of valuation, and the givenness of the occasion as past would be overthrown.
But Whitehead quite explicitly states that God’s primordial nature is "infinite, devoid of all negative prehensions" (PR 524). Since God’s conceptual valuation involves every conceivable possibility, eliminating none through negative prehensions, there is no way in which the satisfaction of the envisagement can be essentially altered. In this case the satisfaction of God can be a component of his concrescent nature without requiring any deviation from the satisfaction or consequent change in its essential character. There simply are no new possibilities which could alter the satisfaction. Therefore, only when a satisfaction is concerned with the partial envisagement of a finite occasion would the fundamental principles of process break down; in the completeness of God’s vision such a breakdown cannot occur.
We earlier cited the objection against Whitehead’s conception of God on the grounds that God as an actual entity could never know satisfaction. Specifically, Cobb states, "In all other entities satisfaction is not attained except as the completion of the entity. If God is a single entity who will never be completed, then on this analogy, he can never know satisfaction" (CNT 189). Yet when the reversal of poles is taken into consideration, the problem disappears, for the satisfaction is then revealed to be primordial and hence eternal.
The second objection to consider is the relevance of God’s primordial envisagement for the finite occasions, or "the perplexing problem as to how the eternally unchanging primordial nature of God can provide different initial aims to every occasion" (CNT 179f). Like Cobb, we must approach this problem by insisting on the essential unity of God, or the actual integration which obtains between the primordial and consequent natures. But unlike Cobb, we do so not through the analogy of the living person, but through the requirements of a reversal of poles.
God is not first a primordial nature and then a consequent nature. The distinction is one of abstraction for the sake of analysis. In actuality the mental and physical poles are not divisible, since there is no actuality without both. Even so in the actual entity, God: in order that understanding can be clarified, we speak of a primordial nature in abstraction, as if it preceded the consequent nature in time. The priority is logical and foundational, not temporal: in actuality God is always primordial, always consequent; always in satisfaction, always in concrescence; always superjective, always prehensive. He is eternal and everlasting; necessarily so, as the reversed entity.
In the unity of the two natures, then, the satisfaction of God yields a subjective aim which "issues into the character of his consequent nature" (PR 524). What can this aim be? Whitehead speaks of it as an aim that "the subjective forms of the feelings shall be such as to constitute the eternal objects into relevant lures of feeling severally appropriate for all realizable basic conditions" (PR 134). This is further described as "the intensification of ‘formal immediacy’" (PR 135). "The prehension into God of each creature is directed with the subjective air" (PR 523), and "the wisdom of subjective aim prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system" (PR 525). There is a two-fold emphasis in these four statements; the first two show the aim in its direction toward the world, and the latter two indicate a return movement, from the world to God. The subjective aim might well be considered the satisfaction of God as manifested in a superjective nature and in a consequent nature: superjective in its influential appetition toward the world, and consequent in its prehension of the world, and in the integration of the prehended world into the unity of the primordial character (PR 529). This double movement of process, with its essential unity, provides the relevance of primordial envisagement for the world’s individual occasions.
If we understand the primordial satisfaction of God to be that of the togetherness of eternal objects in valuation, then we must know that this satisfaction is a supreme harmony. As Whitehead describes such a harmony in ‘the closing chapters of Adventures of Ideas, its integral components are zest, adventure, beauty, truth, and peace. These are not appendages to harmony, as if somehow the togetherness of objects in God’s vision could dispense with such elements -- harmony itself is a complex unity which is supremely achieved insofar as its component parts intensify and illumine one another. These qualities, in their reciprocity, exemplify togetherness. Insofar as God’s conceptual envisagement is the togetherness of all possibilities, it is the ultimate harmony.
When this satisfaction is translated into subjective aim, then the "intensification of ‘formal immediacy’" becomes an extremely illuminating description of the aim. Since harmony is achieved most intensely when a greater rather than a lesser number of possibilities are combined in complementary togetherness, intensification of immediacy signifies an aim toward complexity in the world, so that a "creative advance of nature" shall occur. God’s superjective aim requires that a twofold harmony of interrelatedness must develop: first, the microcosmic harmony of each occasion, in which the occasions are enabled to incorporate as many elements in harmonious togetherness as possible, and second, the macrocosmic togetherness of the individual occasions, so that the individually attained harmonies might be interwoven in each new becoming. This macrocosmic harmony becomes the basis for ever growing levels of microcosmic intensity.
The return phase of the subjective aim, wherein the microcosmic and therefore macrocosmic harmonies are unified with the divine harmony, demonstrates the relevance of the primordial satisfaction for the world. Whitehead describes this phase of God’s concrescence as an integration within God (PR 524), as the everlasting completion of God (PR 527), and as the source of relevance for the world (PR 532). How is this so? The primordial harmony is all-inclusive, yet it is associated with the abstractions of possibility. The integrating process whereby God interweaves the prehended world with his primordial satisfaction is the concretization of this satisfaction, the brilliantly moving experience of its reality. With each actuality prehended, however minute it might be, the beauty of God’s harmony is given determinate form, for possible relations yield to actual relations. By clothing each actuality with a subjective form derived from his primordial conceptualization, God feels the actuality in its ever-changing relationship to the whole of his nature (PR 523, 525). Since the whole of his nature is one of ever expanding actuality, no relationship within that nature is ever static: the satisfaction of God is one of dynamic harmony.
This integration of actuality with the primordial nature provides a dimension of "real potentiality" for further occasions in the world which goes beyond the "real potentiality" of the temporal past. This is because God feels a prehended occasion for what it can be in a perfected system -- not just "any" perfected system, but a definite system which is what it is fully as much by the inclusion of the new occasion as by all others. Beauty, zest, truth, adventure, and peace are not abstract in the integrated nature of God, but are concretely experienced in definite patterns of relatedness: given this actual occasion, this pattern of beauty is, in a continuously shifting panorama of feeling. In this concrete experience of integration, the realized pattern is composed of the occasion’s own relatedness to its temporal past, and the conformation of this occasion, with this past, into the whole complex of God’s satisfaction. The occasion is related to all possibilities through the subjective form with which the occasion is clothed in God (PR 523). Given this integration, then, God feels the occasion, its past, and the finest potentialities this occasion renders possible for a temporal future. The relevance for the world is precisely in this feeling, for it is nothing less than an appetition for the future of the world. Thus it passes superjectively into the world as the evocation of a new intensity, a new occasion. Calling forth a specific new occasion, this feeling of appetition is the most relevant and the most real potential for that occasion -- it is received as the initial aim.
Thus a nascent occasion inherits its real potentiality not only from its finite past, but from God’s feeling for it as a possible future. "God has objective immortality in respect to his primordial nature and his consequent nature" (PR 47). This double influence, attained through the integration of the world with the primordial vision, renders the satisfaction of God, and hence the subjective aim, immediately relevant to a concrescing world. This relevance depends upon a reverse concrescence, for it assumes a fullness of satisfaction which is then manifested in an ever changing form of determinate actuality.
This brings us to the final objection being considered here, which is the ability of an occasion to prehend an everlastingly concrescent God. The difficulty is not with God’s prehension of the world, since he only prehends an occasion upon its completion. His evocation of a nascent occasion is appetition, and not prehension. But it is another matter concerning the occasion’s prehension of God, for if "the process occurring within an occasion has no efficacy for other occasions" (CNT 188), how is it that God’s internal integration can be causally efficacious? How can an occasion prehend an initial aim which derives from the activity of God’s concrescence?
Efficacy depends upon determinateness. An actual occasion acquires efficient causation when that occasion is fully realized, complete, decided, determinate: as such, it imposes an obligation upon the future. This state of efficacy is objective immortality and is the superjective aspect of the occasion’s satisfaction. We maintain that it is determinateness which allows causal efficacy, rather than the pastness of concrescence as such. An occasion’s internal concrescence is not an object for another occasion’s direct prehension precisely because this internal nature, as indeterminate, is not yet given. How can that which is not given be an object for prehension? Determinateness is required.
Given the primordial satisfaction of God, God satisfies the requirement of determinateness. In his origination through the mental pole, God’s satisfaction is primordially definite; in his process of concrescence, that definiteness simply manifests itself as a continuously moving determinateness. Since determinateness is necessary for objectification, there is no categoreal reason why God may not be prehended by an occasion, despite the fact that his concrescence is everlasting, and hence "with" all occasions. His conceptual beginning and satisfaction make all the difference in this regard.
In summation, the reversal of poles entails a concrescence which in every respect moves conversely to the world. This reversed concrescence, wherein satisfaction issues into a superjective aim, allows a relevance of God to the world, an availability of God to the contemporary world, and the everlasting completion of God through his unification of the world with his primordial satisfaction.
We suggested earlier that to overlook the necessity and implications of the reversed concrescence, and to make God more analogous to occasions within a living society, entailed the possible danger of making God an exception to the metaphysical principles of process philosophy. The prime difficulty is that a reversal of poles requires an everlasting concrescence which is incompatible with the succession of concrescences required by the societal view. If an entity originates in a reversal of poles, then it must move from one to many in an increasingly complex unity. A primordial satisfaction necessarily requires, through its superjectivity, a concrescence toward ever greater complexity. The concrescence must be everlasting, since there can be no end to the superjective nature of an all-inclusive valuation of possibilities. To deny the everlasting nature of the concrescence, therefore, requires an equal denial of the reversal of poles. But once this is denied, we have undercut the very route to the rational completion of the process understanding of reality, for we have ‘then eliminated the only rational understanding of novelty. Novelty requires the admission of an entity whose primordial origination is conceptual, but such an entity must then be everlastingly concrescent -- and everlastingly one.
CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965.